“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things…With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:3-5, 9-10)
In his letter, James moves from teaching about the fruit of faith in our works in chapter 2 to the fruit of faith with our tongues in chapter 3. He compares our tongues to bits in the mouths of horses or rudders on large ships. But unlike bits or rudders, that cannot speak, our tongues boast excessively. The comparison is one of size and influence, not function. A small bit or rudder can guide toward a destination or miss its mark entirely. Our tongues, likewise, can either encourage and build others up or tear them down in discouragement. There are two paths, we choose one or the other—we move toward God or away from him. The wise walk with God, blessing him and the foolish walk on their own path, as if cursing him by their unbelief, critical spirits, and disenfranchised attitudes.
According to God, through James, “we all stumble in many ways” (3:2a) and cannot control our tongues (3:8). Paul lamented over this divided condition of a child of God. “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:14-23) We may think that our slips into sin are small, but they have disastrous consequences, which Paul understood.
The truth of our persistent sinfulness would leave us hopeless and helpless were it not for the knowledge that we have been adopted into God’s family, the body of Christ. Paul declares, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) James says that “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (3:2b). Who is this perfect man? He is Jesus Christ and only Christ. James and Paul agree—none of us is perfect except the One who atones for us. Our tongues either bless Jesus or curse him.
Today in church we have the opportunity to meet with Jesus Christ, to be blessed by his gospel. Are you anticipating the strength you will receive from corporate worship, confession, and communion? The more we practice using our tongues for blessing, the better. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity…and watching over the way of his saints…for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech.” (Proverbs 2:6-12)
“Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life…Christ the blessed one gives to all, wonderful words of life…All so freely given, wooing us to heaven. Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.” (“Wonderful Words of Life” hymn, by Phillip P. Bliss—PDHymns.com)